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How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design

It’s neutral design camouflage that’s easy to find, wherever you may be.

How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design

“It’s like camouflage.” That’s how one design gallerist, Patrick Parrish, explained the enduring popularity of midcentury modern design to the New York Times this week, in a piece entitled “Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?”


It’s a question critics have been asking, in various ways, for decades. It helps that midcentury design encompasses a remarkably wide and ill-defined period, encompassing many decades and many distinct schools and movements. Meanwhile, midcentury design also plays into our collective fixation on tidy, clean spaces. A lot of it was designed to be mass-produced–and indeed, plenty of knock-offs have sprung up online. It is humane and inclusive, an inoffensive design camouflage that can easily be picked up online or in countless chain stores around the country. It’s reigned in pop culture, from Mad Men to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “I’m reading a book about Le Courvoisier, which is an architect,” Kris Jenner recently said in one clip. “It’s so weird and boring, but I’m obsessed.”

It’s the pumpkin spice latte of the design world: a prefabricated style so inoffensive and ubiquitous that even cynics eventually yield to its nostalgic, neutral warmth. There are many deeper, near-anthropological explanations for the rise of midcentury design, though. It was popularized during the Cold War, when the U.S. sought to portray well-designed American consumer goods as an ideological weapon against the USSR. Then there is theory proposed by the New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik, the Golden Forty Year Rule, which states that nostalgia moves in 40-year cycles, where cultural nostalgia follows a pattern of popularizing styles and aesthetics from roughly four decades prior. Fascinatingly, the term “midcentury design” itself didn’t even exist until it was coined in the mid-1980s, as Laura Fenton reported last year. Google’s Ngram Viewer definitely seems to support the 40-year rule, with mentions of “midcentury modern” exploding around 2000.

A Google Ngram shows the frequency of midcentury design from 1900-2008. For reference, here’s the PSL version.

It may also be the product of a great averaging: as algorithms track our preferences and shape our online lives accordingly, we’re all becoming more and more similar. Siri and Alexa, for example, are killing off regional accents. Facebook crafts our news feeds so they match up to what it knows we already love and hate. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork are popularizing the same generic spaces across the globe; it even has a name, recently christened by Kyle Chayka: airspace. Midcentury modern design, it seems, is another form of technological averaging–the cream, gray, and wood-paneled amalgam of all user tastes.

Another fascinating data point about its popularity comes from the home design startup Modsy. The company was founded by Google Ventures and Autodesk alumna Shanna Tellerman, who specialized in game development at CMU and went on to work in the game industry before launching Modsy in August. Tellerman is applying her expertise in game development and rendering to an unlikely space: interior design. To her, it’s an industry that’s badly in need of better UX, a belief reinforced by her own experience trying, and failing, to decorate her new home in San Francisco.


Modsy makes architectural visualization accessible to owners of homes and apartments: For $99, the company will model your space and render it with a new interior plan and furniture, based on your response to a quiz that identifies your ideal style based on a proprietary style “genome” designed by the company. A team of employees then arrange a selection of pieces within your space using an in-house rendering engine and a database of digital furniture models, kicking back a photo-real rendering of what your apartment could look like. If you decide to buy any of those pieces, you can buy them directly through Modsy. It’s a clever piece of UX for people who aren’t interested in hiring an interior designer or spending their weekends scouring stores–which is to say, the majority of us.

While this style quiz is one small part of a much larger business, it’s also a tiny glimpse into what consumers like, and what they don’t, when it comes to design. Of some 10,000-odd people who have taken the quiz so far–it’s free on Modsy’s site–the vast majority end up with the same result, called “mod visionary,” even when broken down by geographic region. Modsy reports that the most popular style, by far, is midcentury modern (the least popular: “classic formal”).

Of course, these results are defined by the way Modsy has designed the quiz and the “styles” it chose as results. But users are also asked to up- or down-vote individual furniture pieces, and the data shows they tend to fall in line, too. The top-ranked pieces include a Blu Dot credenza (“clean details, warm wood”) and a Crate and Barrel chair (“midcentury lines capture the best of 1950s design”).


All of this suggests that midcentury design is less a “style” or era of design as it is a byword for “design” itself, as opposed to spaces and products that were not “designed” at all. It goes hand-in-hand with a centuries-long shift in how we think about, and shop for, our own spaces. Before the 20th century, the furniture you owned might be the product of circumstance, where you lived, or simply what you inherited. Even a decade ago, it was often determined by what stores you had access to nearby. Today, we can buy any piece of furniture, from any era, almost instantly. In this way, we’re shifting toward consuming furniture as a kind of gadget or product platform, something we can swap in and out of our lives to best suit our needs and represent our identities.

In that way, midcentury design is literally the “camouflage” Parrish spoke of–a tabula rasa that is easy to produce, easy to ship, and difficult to object to.




Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design’s deputy editor.


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Continue reading How Midcentury Modern Became The Pumpkin Spice Latte Of Interior Design


Mid-century Modern goes mainstream

Mr Bigglesworthy furniture reflects the passion of business owners Dan and Emma Eagle. Photographed in the McClew House designed by architect Ken Albert in 1966.
Mr Bigglesworthy furniture reflects the passion of business owners Dan and Emma Eagle. Photographed in the McClew House designed by architect Ken Albert in 1966.

It’s perhaps the strongest furniture trend this year, and it shows no sign of slowing.

Mid-century Modern pieces are appearing in new furniture collections throughout the country as demand soars.

Of course, there are the classics that have never gone out of style, such as the Eames lounge chair, G Plan furniture and Saarinen tables. But, increasingly, the look is finding favour with a younger generation, which didn’t see the furniture first time round.

Continue reading Mid-century Modern goes mainstream

7 Vintage Interior Design Trends That Are Making a Comeback

| Oct 18, 2016

Just because a trend is dated doesn’t mean it’s bad. After all, Louis XIV lived in the 17th century, and look how crazy people go over his favorite furnishings.

Although designers will say that good design is timeless, it’s too late for all those homeowners who were ripping out their vintage Mid-Century Modern accents for decades until “Mad Men” made the 1960s cool again. Now even wood-paneled walls, which those of us who grew up in the ’70s love to hate, are coming back in a new, stylish way (and our kids will probably tear it out in 20 years’ time).

Of course, not every interior design trend needs a revival. Absolutely no one wants popcorn ceilings back. But these seven retro looks are either clawing their way back toward popularity—or (fingers crossed) they will be soon.


1920s: Tortoiseshell

Pacific Heights Townhouse

This intricate design grew popular in the late 19th century and enjoyed an Art Deco-inspired resurgence during the 1920s. Today, this mottled black-and-brown pattern is a classic for spectacles, shoes, and hair combs—but why did it disappear from our decor? (To be clear, we’re not asking designers to poach the endangered hawksbill sea turtle to make our living rooms great again.)

Today’s white walls and minimalist designs are the perfect backdrop for complex, dark motifs. Choose a small accent, like this tortoiseshell vase or inlaid mirror. Or if you’re feeling daring, tortoiseshell tiling makes a bold addition to a bath. Pair with simple marble tile, crisp walls, and bronze accents to create a funky, elegant washroom. Designers have just started poking around with tortoiseshell accents, so risk-takers get the joy of being trend-setters.


1930s: Stained glass

Swan River Home

We’re all about our double-paned glass and our energy-efficient windows, but the downside to such practical choices is that modern windows lack interest and excitement. Most homeowners only consider stained glass if they’ve purchased a vintage beauty, but it works just as beautifully inside a contemporary space.

Trendsetters have already received the memo, incorporating stained glass into furniture and accessories, but with some modern twists.

While it might cost a pretty penny, most cities have studios that can create custom stained glass designs that fit your home’s style—no matter which century inspired you. Simple designs in bright, cheerful colors perk up a pared-down space, and quirky, geometric designs bring life to a boring transom. But be prepared: Stained glass windows are less energy-efficient. Work with your installer to create a solution that works for you.


1940s: Colored milk glass

Amy Trowman Sullivans Beach House No. 3

If you haven’t spent much time thinking about ’40s decor, you’re in good company. Similar to the ’70s, the pre-Mid-Century decade loved weird floor plans and too much green. But they did one thing right: colored milk glass.

Vintage collectors can spend some serious coin hunting down authentic Anchor Hocking jadeite glassware on eBay and Etsy. Traditional milk glass is white, but colored alternatives—like the hyperpopular jade version and its twin sister, azurite—are coveted by collectors and vintage enthusiasts. But their subdued hues and gorgeous designs make them an ideal addition to today’s all-white kitchens, which desperately need a touch of color.

Unless you’re willing to jump in with the auction crowds, finding colored milk glass today can be a challenge. But done correctly, it complements even the most modern kitchen and works effortlessly in farmhouse-style homes.


1950s: Bold kitchens

House in Kfar Tavor

When it comes to outfitting our home in ’50s decor, we often veer toward the always popular Mid-Century Modern—with a few cases of full-on Mamie Eisenhower pink. But there’s one Mid-Century trend that gets the sledgehammer whenever vintage homes change hands: colorful kitchens, painted in bright yellows, greens, or blues.

Not that white kitchens aren’t lovely—they’re clean, minimalist, and right now, both classic and trendy. But from the subway tile to the crisp Corian countertops, there’s no denying they all kind of look the same. 

Mid-Century kitchens were swathed in color, from the fridge to the countertops to the cabinetry. And while there’s no need to paint everything the same color, a bold accent color can make food prep far more interesting. We know we’re part of a fringe movement with our pleas for more color in the kitchen, but we predict that will change soon—experts say the days of cautious kitchen design are numbered.


1960s: Patterned wallpaper

Bohemian Apartment Study
Sometime around the turn of this century, we all collectively decided to spend 70 billion hours scraping off the garish wallpaper that had plagued our homes for many, many decades. That left us rather hesitant to turn around and slather on such a risky decor choice again.But wallpaper is making a comeback, taking cues from inspired designers of the ’60s (and early ’70s) who created delightful patterns that made for a killer accent wall. Sure, their designs featured way too much brown and orange—hardly anyone’s favorite color this side of 2000—but they were playfulfunky, and geometric.

You can modernize the look by swapping in white and gold for the outdated shades, or go wild with bright colors and fun patterns to bring quirky ’60s style to your modern abode. And don’t worry about the sweat: Many of today’s wallpapers are significantly easier to remove.


1970s: Avocado green


Avocado is the best fruit. Why is it a curse word when it comes to paint?

Hear us out. Yes, avocado green was possibly one of the worst decor ideas of the ’70s. But subtract the burnt-orange carpeting, the outdated faux-veneer wood-paneled walls, and it’s almost attractive.

Paired with wooden beams, it’s downright modern. Subdue it a little—ask your favorite paint store to mix in some white. Start small and paint your cabinets or cover your favorite bookshelf. But don’t you dare match it with brass. Please don’t buy avocado carpets. And no, the world isn’t ready for a guacamole-inspired armchair.


1980s: Chintz

Guest Bath

Finally, the comeback we’ve been eagerly awaiting—chintz. Yeah, you read that right. We’re thrilled this look is making its return to the decor world. Sure, done improperly, it feels like your grandma’s house. Paired with dark woods, it can feel downright ridiculous. And if you’re ostentatious enough to pair it with another pattern (or, God forbid, another chintz pattern), it can make your eyes bleed.

But by selecting large-scale, graphic fabrics and wallpapers, the outdated floral pattern fits right in on Pinterest. That’s because the ’80s had the right idea with flowers. They’re elegant, flirty, and nice to look at. And when wintertime comes, it might just feel a bit like spring.


Jamie Wiebe writes about home design and real estate for She has previously written for House Beautiful, Elle Decor, Real Simple, Veranda, and more.
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